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SEEN AND HEARD CONCERT REVIEW
Howard Blake 70th Birthday Concert: Robert William Blake (treble), Bernard Cribbins (narrator), William Chen (piano), Patricia Rozario (soprano), Martyn Hill (tenor), Lars Arvidson (bass-baritone), London Voices (chorus master: Terry Edawrds), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Howard Blake, Cadogan Hall, London, 28.10.2008 (BBr)
Howard Blake: The Snowman, op.323 (1982)
Piano Concerto, op.412 (1991)
The Passion of Mary, op.577 (2006) (British première)
This was a fascinating evening, whether you knew Howard Blake's work or not. The first half contained two of his most approachable pieces - The Snowman (in its concert version for narrator and orchestra) and the Piano Concerto. The second half was made up of one of Blake's most recent, and most serious offerings - a dramatic oratorio The Passion of Mary.
The Snowman needs no introduction - it's the score for the famous animated film of Raymond Briggs's book, the most startling part of it being that there's no dialogue whatsoever, the music tells the story together with the visuals. In this version we have the music with a narration – brilliantly and humorously delivered by the ever dependable Bernard Cribbins – and all the well known bits are there - the Dance of the Snowmen, the little boy playing in the snow, the Snowman being shown round the house and the famous song Walking in the Air - beautifully delivered by Blake's 10 year old son. Both Cribbins and Robert William Blake were amplified, but much more discreetly than I have heard in recent times, and the balance was as near perfect as it could possibly be. This was a delightful start to the show and relaxed the audience, preparing it for what was to come.
Blake was commissioned to write his Piano Concerto for the 30th birthday of Princess Diana and he gave the première himself in the Royal Festival Hall in London in 1991. It's a real virtuoso piece and requires a pianist of world class. William Chen was just the man for the job - and he knows Blake's work, having recorded the suite Lifecycle (ABC Classics 476 118–4). His approach had many points of similarity with Blake's own recording but there were several passages which he treated in a new way. He enjoyed letting the music run away with itself (yet he was always in control) and was quite happy to throw caution to the wind and play devil's advocate with some of the showier passages, much to the consternation of Blake the conductor, but to the delight of Blake the composer. The slow movement was particularly well done, the simplicity of the opening, with solo lines for violins and viola over a quietly repeating piano chord, the full, and passionate, climax growing from the opening quartet and the nearly time–suspending coda were played almost nonchalantly, thus heightening the beauty of the music. The raucous set of variations, which is the finale, gave ample opportunity for both soloist and orchestra to let their hair down and have some real fun. The long first movement - Blake does like to write opening movements which take up half the playing time of the completed work - suffered slightly because the size of the string section (188.8.131.52.2), although being perfect for the other two pieces, left this work understrung at times and the sound was a bit thin. But one shouldn't complain when the overall performance was as fine as this one.
After the interval we entered a totally different world. The Passion of Mary is a large scale oratorio in all but playing time. Into a mere 50 minutes Blake crams the experience of a Bach Passion or Handel Oratorio, complete with recitatives arias and choruses and a particularly violent depiction of the Crucifixion scene for orchestra alone. As one might imagine from the title, the work relies heavily on the part of Mary, who is given the most radiant music, written in a wide range, much of it laying high in the voice. Patricia Rozario glowed in the part, mystical and full of wonder at the events unfolding in her life, keeping control of her voice and never loosing sight of the fact that this music truly is beautiful. The smaller parts – and any other parts would have to be fairly small – were well taken by Robert William Blake – as the young Jesus - Lars Arvidson (possibly the tallest singer around and with the lowest notes) was a solid narrator – and Martyn Hill had a particularly gorgeous scena as Jesus. The diction of all the soloists was admirable and this made it easy to follow the drama as the events unfolded. At the end the audience was dumbfounded at the strength of the work, and, perhaps through tiredness (this work is an emotionally tiring experience) didn’t give the work the credit it was due. In the foyer I heard many members of the audience expressing delight and satisfaction at what they had heard so we know that the music made the effect it was meant to.
It’s obvious that Blake isn’t a professional, career, conductor, but he coaxed fine playing from the Royal Philharmonic, who responded well to his direction. The 24 members of London Voices – trained by the ever dependable Terry Edwards – sounded like a much larger group and easily moved from bloodthirsty mob to Angelic chorus, for the final Salve Regina.
Howard Blake is a fine composer whose concert work has, for too long, gone unnoticed and unrecognised. It is to be hoped that this show has shown people just what fine music he is writing. Full marks to all concerned for a very special show.
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